The Explosive Growth Of Evangelical Belief In Latinos Has Big Political Implications
As I walked into the Crowne Plaza hotel outside of Houston, Texas in April, it was hard not to confuse my surroundings for a typical evangelical Christian convention.
Once I made it past countless booths peddling Bible software and anti-abortion pamphlets, I slipped into a darkly-lit banquet hall, where the guitarist of a lively rock band was just hitting the first power chords of rousing spiritual anthem. As the singer, illuminated by glaring spotlights, stepped up to the microphone, thousands of hands were suddenly lifted into the air, rocking in time with the music. Beside me, a man swayed back and forth in the classic fashion of American evangelicals: eyes closed, hands clasped together, head tilted back in rapturous prayer. As I watched, he spread his arms wide, smiled, and began to sing.
But while the tune — “Trading My Sorrows” — would be familiar in many American megachurches, the words, projected on two screens flanking the performers, sounded distinctly different: “Aunque triste en al noche yo este / El gozo viene en la mañana / Sí Señor, sí, sí Señor!” he sang, repeating the last line over and over again before shouting “Amen!”
The man was joined by a chorus of 1,000 or so attendees at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) board convention, an annual event convened earlier this year in Texas. They collectively represent a small portion of America’s several million Hispanic evangelicals, sometimes called “evangélicos” — a theologically conservative, politically complicated, but rapidly-expanding population of Latinos who call evangelicalism their spiritual home.
Much has been written over the past year or so about the ecstatic faith and explosive growth of this new brand of Latino faithful, who unsettle traditional understandings of American Hispanics as a predominantly Catholic demographic. But as the United States gears up for the 2016 presidential election, Hispanic evangelicals appear to be making that classic American shift from curious cultural newcomer to powerful political force.
If attendees at the conference in Houston were to be believed, Hispanic evangelicals are eager to vote, and in substantial numbers. Yet unlike Hispanic Catholics, who overwhelmingly reflect the Democratic party platform on several key issues, Latino evangelicals share political sensibilities with both parties. This has made their voting habits increasingly uncertain, meaning the group could become that much-prized unicorn of American politics: the swing vote.
The 2016 election may be the “coming out” year for the Latino evangelicals, but as candidates and parties — and particularly the GOP — begin jockeying for this unusual electorate, one question is lingering in the minds of political strategists on both sides of the aisle: Who will win the “evangélicos vote”?
Hispanic evangelicals share more than worship styles with their white theological brethren. Following in the tradition of Billy Graham and Rick Warren, evangélicos are primarily represented outside their community by a small group of dynamic pastors, most of whom enjoy robust followings and the political power that comes with it.